8th July 2021
Success on the global stage requires constant innovation. Products, services and processes need to be continuously updated and improved to meet the changing demands of international customers, markets and supply chains. Enterprise Ireland’s Agile Innovation Fund helps companies to quickly develop innovations and respond to opportunities and threats in new and existing markets.
“Studies have shown in recent years that companies which engage in research, development and innovation are much better placed to compete and grow,” says Leo Clancy, the chief executive of Enterprise Ireland. “They tend to export more, have better productivity and sales outcomes, and show more resilience to ups and downs in the market.”
The Agile Innovation Fund allows companies to access up to 50 per cent in funding support for projects with a total cost of up to €300,000 — with a fasttrack approval and streamlined online application process. The fund is particularly suitable for companies that need to rapidly develop solutions or are planning their first foray into R&D.
During 2020, more than 120 companies received support worth about €12 million from the fund. “This helped fund R&D projects worth more than €20 million,” says Tom Kelly, divisional manager at Enterprise Ireland.
The Agile Innovation Fund is specifically aimed at companies with no real track record of R&D activity, according to Kelly, who explains that research and development and wider innovation are among the best ways of future-proofing a business.
“There is no doubt about it,” he says. “The rapid pace of technological change is redefining how business is done and how we lead our lives, and businesses have to innovate in response. The Agile Innovation Fund is a way of giving companies an incentive to engage in R&D activity. We want to get the message across that every company should engage in R&D and innovation. Ubiquity of innovation across all businesses is crucial and we need more companies to take on the challenge.”
The large number of companies supported during 2020 only tells part of the story in relation to increased R&D activity by Irish firms. “The message really seems to be getting through, particularly to smaller businesses,” Kelly says. “That was evidenced in the number of companies we had coming through the local enterprise offices [LEOs] last year. There is great work being done by the LEOs across the country. Companies coming through them are smaller by definition and they are putting together very good proposals and getting support from the fund.”
During 2020 LEOs in 14 counties had companies participating in the fund, and the county with the most applications was Roscommon. “A lot of small firms out in the regions are stepping up to do R&D. It’s very good to see that increase happening. This is part of a wider trend where we are seeing a lot of companies doing R&D projects for the first time.”
Another interesting aspect of the Agile Innovation Fund is how it can be used to support companies on their journey to becoming exporters. “We are supporting companies that are in a transition phase towards becoming Enterprise Ireland clients,” Kelly says. “They are not yet exporting, but we are helping them get there. In fact, a significant number of the companies supported by the Agile Innovation Fund are in that export development phase. Of the 120 companies or so that we supported last year, about 45 per cent of them came through the LEOs or are on their way to becoming exporters. They are companies that wouldn’t have been strongly associated with R&D in the past and that is great to see.”
The streamlined approval process and the scale of funding on offer may have been designed to appeal to smaller firms, but the Agile Innovation Fund is also relevant to larger companies that may be running smaller R&D projects with rapid turnaround times.
“It is very useful as a learning experience for companies of all sizes,” Kelly adds. “The ideal for us is to see a company coming in and doing an Agile project, learning from that, building innovation capability and capacity, and then going on to bigger, more challenging projects. Over time, they will hopefully go beyond Agile projects and their confidence in their own ability will be greatly enhanced.”
While the fast approval times and scale of the funding on offer are designed to appeal to smaller firms, the scheme is also relevant to larger companies. “It is very good for smaller projects with rapid turnaround times.”
One company to benefit from Enterprise Ireland R&D funding is Marco Beverage Systems, a hot water delivery systems company headquartered in Dublin. It provides systems for coffee and tea brewing in the food and beverage industry. It has manufacturing plants in Dublin and China, and distribution offices in America, Europe, the Middle East and China.
“It’s important as an SME to be able to afford to continually innovate,” says Paul Stack, the operations director. “In our business, we generally get about a seven-to-ten-year product lifetime, so innovation is key to replacing and renewing products.”
The company received support for the development of its Uber Boiler one-cup coffee brewing station, which has replaced bulk coffee systems in many restaurants. “The product completely changed how our brand was seen in the marketplace, as it was so innovative. It opened doors for us, especially in new regions like America. People came to us because of the popularity of the technology,” Stack says.
“People sometimes see an R&D grant as something to get a product to market, but a reputation for innovation also increases your brand value and drives sales all by itself. R&D drives a whole culture of innovation in your business, which keeps you relevant and sets you apart from competitors,” Stack adds. “I wouldn’t just suggest that other Irish SMEs conduct R&D — I consider it absolutely critical. Enterprise Ireland’s funding can really drive this forward.”
Collaboration with academic research is also a significant route to innovation, according to Clancy. “In addition to our core R&D funding, which provides direct grant aid to companies to help them to do their own in-house research, we provide financial supports for access to academia for companies which will allow them to work with research expertise and facilities that may not be available in the company,” he says.
A key priority is to continue to build innovation within companies by unlocking the knowledge that exists in universities and institutes of technology through the work of Knowledge Transfer Ireland (knowlegetransferireland.com). There were 2,600 live collaborations between third-level researchers and industry aided by the work of KTI at the end of 2019, up from 1,800 in 2018.
“There is a huge amount of know-how, capability and experience in our third-level institutions. The most direct way to create real economic benefit from our third-level system is to get that knowledge out in the open and into companies,” Clancy adds.
“I think KTI has helped that to happen in a way that is fair to all parties. There is a good process that recognises how the intellectual property [IP] was created and gives the appropriate benefit back to its creators. It is important that this happens in a measured way for both industry and third-level researchers. The KTI team has built a really good base and one of the key things it does through its support for Technology Transfer Offices is ensure that people focus on protecting their IP from an early stage.”
And for companies looking to bring R&D in-house, Kelly encourages companies of all sizes to look at how the Agile Innovation Fund can help them. “Applying for funding is quite a simple process and we can approve applications within four weeks.” Help is at hand for companies just starting out on the journey. “We run workshops to demonstrate what’s involved,” he concludes. “We have a special Exploring Innovation feasibility study grant to help companies get ready for their first R&D project.”
Source: The Sunday Times
Image source: Marco Beverage Systems